Friday, March 26, 2010

The culture of Korean English instruction

Korea has what sociologist Geert Hofstede calls a "strongly uncertainty averse" culture. In practice this means that Koreans tend to love rules because of their ability to structure life, seemingly reduce uncertainty, and provide direction. My partner is an English instructor at a Korean after-school tutoring center (영어 학관). Ninety percent of her lessons focus on teaching English grammar. I am also a part time English teacher at a few public schools that are distributed across the islands near my home. While teaching we have both had several experiences that illustrate the impact that Korean culture's rule preference has on how and what English grammar is taught in Korea.
English grammar is notoriously difficult. Exceptions to grammar rules abound and the flexibility of the grammar and large vocabulary make it especially difficult for people from cultures, like Korea's, who prefer operating through clearly established rules. Korea's own language has a fairly simple grammar and alphabet (한글) compared to English, although strong Chinese influence complicates things at times.

A few short anecdotes are suggestive.

1. In Korea the difference between the use of "will" and "be going to" to indicate future tense is defined by a rule. "Will" is said to be used for events that will happen in the distant future, while "be going to" is used for shorter time horizons.
2. In Korea the following sentence is taught to be grammatically incorrect, "They pronounced everyone of the accused guilty." The reason given is that "guilty" cannot be grammatically placed at the end of the sentence. It must reside next to "pronounced", as in "They pronounced guilty everyone of the accused." Similar sentences must follow this rule.
3. It is taught that the difference between "shall" and "will" is that the former is always used as an imperative, as in "Thou shall not murder." A sentence such as "I shall go to the store tomorrow" is considered grammatically incorrect.
4. While holding up a picture of a "lazy boy" chair several students responded that it was indeed not a chair but a sofa. Although their English ability did not allow them to articulate why, they assured me that their other teacher had given them very clear rules on how to differentiate a chair from a sofa. Despite my efforts, they insisted that I was wrong to call the "sofa" a chair. This same dynamic has occurred when I have introduced words such as cap and hat, and table and desk. Korean students are generally loathe to admit that a clear categorical distinction between these terms does not exist.

To me this stuff is fascinating. Nor are these anecdotes merely interesting (or not?) but devoid of any real consequences. Imagine yourself as a Korean student who must always make a determination about how far in the future an event will occur before being able to utter a future tense sentence, remembering that in Korea's uncertainty-averse culture the fear of being wrong is much higher than in most Western cultures.
But also notice how self-inflicted and manufactured this difficultly and fear is because the rules, at least amongst native speakers, do not actually exist. And yet again there is an incredible market for them. As proof one only needs to witness my partner's (full) grammar classes at which such rules are taught or see the disappointed, and generally incredulous, look on a student's face when I tell them that "there is no rule" or its "just a matter of style."
Again it is a fascinating dynamic to behold.